From Food Crisis to Famine?

Many people are wondering whether the world is headed towards widespread famines? Can the world continually feed billions of people without destroying the entire planet? Is global hunger for billions of people inevitable?

“Hunger does not breed reform; it breeds madness, and all the ugly distempers that make an ordered life impossible,” Woodrow Wilson declared on his address to Congress, November 11, 1918 marking the end of WWI. This speech was also given as a plague had broken out. Today an incompetent U.S President is not able to talk directly to the millions of the unemployed people whose families are continually hungry because they don’t have the money nor access to any of the nearby food charities such as Feeding America.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, the US Department of Agriculture admitted that 37 million Americas were food insecure. A new charitable organization, Feeding America, is a network of more than 200 food banks which is trying to meet the demands of millions who have lost their jobs. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, was so impressed by what Feeding America is doing that he donated $100 million. This helps, but in the 10 weeks after March 1, 2020 Feeding America provided 1.3 billion meals to the hungry — many of whom had never before queued-up for charity.1

Maximo Torero, the chief economist of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, recently declared that the world’s food systems were under unprecedented threat, as the lockdowns for the pandemic disturbed the ability of millions to harvest, buy and sell food. He cautioned that “This is a very different food crisis than the ones we have seen.”

Globally, multiple millions of people are at risk of extreme poverty this coming winter, however the longer-term effects of the pandemic are frightening, as deep hunger in childhood can leave life-long scars. Already twenty percent of children on this globe are stunted by the age of five and as global poverty rates rise, so will their suffering.
Hunger can be extremely destructive. I know first hand because when I was nine years old our family was being held in a Moroccan detention camp and there was next to nothing to eat. Teeth began to rattle, hair to fall, large sores developed, and I was fighting a plague which had killed many children in the camp. I was close to the end when some fruits were ultimately found to save my life.

My next personal experience with famine was 15 years later when I landed in New Delhi in the midst of a famine. When I walked out of the empty garden of my hotel that first morning, there were no police nor guards and I was faced with a large scattering of ragged beggars holding out their skinny hands and shrieking for help. I thought I could go through them but instantly was blocked on my way by a dead man lying on the curb. To my horror, one of his skinny legs was stretched over another’s dead body. I had a few coins but I knew that this would offer little help to this crowd and I feared I might be stripped of everything on my body if I put my hand in my trousers. So I swiftly turned around and rushed back over the fly-covered dead and through the hotel’s gate. My memory goes back to the starving faces and bulging eyes of that famine of April 1956. I felt abashed then at not being able to help those beggars who were dying.

I spent the next two days in the hotel reading about famines in a book on India. Historically, this vast nation had been dependent on monsoon rains and for centuries lacked the means of transporting food to all parts of the country. In the great famine in Bengal 1769-70 more than ten million died. Although it had become a British colony, the London Parliament had no settled famine policy until 1866. Then the English did little to help except the introduction of railroads.

Today my equilibrium is challenged all the time by reportages on television and the internet focused on famines in Somalia, Yemen, Sudan, Afghanistan and others in Africa and the Middle East. The despair of the multiple scenes of young children starving are haunting. David Beasley, the head of he World Food Program, warned earlier this year that the danger of multiple famines of “Biblical proportions” were ahead of us. A quarter of Somalia’s 16 million people, for example, were currently facing famine because its crops had been swept away by floods and then ravaged by swarms of desert locusts leading to humanitarian disaster.

According to a report produced by the UN, more than 265 million people are currently being pushed to the edge of starvation, which doubles the number under threat before Covid-19. In an interview with The Guardian, Beasley said, “We are not talking about people going to bed hungry. We are talking about extreme conditions, emergency status — people literally marching to the brink of starvation. If we don’t get food to people, people will die.” The worst of the impact of the pandemic and ensuing recession are yet to be felt, warned Antonio Guterres the UN secretary general.

Globally, better social protections for the poor are needed, said Guterres, as the looming recession following the coronavirous pandemic may put basic nutrition beyond their reach. Dangerous deficiencies in our food systems, such as export controls and stockpiling, could assist in producing humanitarian disasters.2 80 per cent of this planet’s people have partly been fed by imports. Thousands of ships connect agricultural products across the seas. Planes, trains, and trucks then help in distribution. For example, Ukrainian wheat is milled into flour by Turkey, some of which is then turned into noodles in China. Such supply and demands of nourishment were mostly flexible in our 21st century. It is important to remember that only four or five countries now grow more rice than they eat.

Lockdowns, however, have been slowing harvests while millions of seasonal laborers are unable to work. At the same time food waste has reached unwelcome levels with farmers forced to dump such perishable produce as milk while some huge meat industry factories have been forced to close. The closure of restaurants and other markets also has resulted in some farmers letting their crops rot rather than pay for harvesting with unsettling consequences. All this has caused the price of basic foods to rise in many countries. Supply chains are also affected by lockdowns and it is difficult to get labor into the fields when they are sick or lacking travel facilities.

Food is also lost by fishermen ranging from Chinese to French who, in their giant freezing boats, throw back more than half of their catch as not saleable. Improved management of wild fish catches could boost returns and add 14 million new jobs according to this year’s World Economic Forum. Such possibilities are hard to accept when a third of humanity, over 3 billion children, women and men, cannot afford enough healthy food to eat, claimed Rashmi Mistry, head of Oxfam’s Grow Campaign. Commenting on the publication of a new UN Report of the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, she pointed out that there are more than 60 million people hungry today than there were five years ago. Mistry insisted that more sustainable ways of feeding people must be found. This included prioritizing the needs of small-scale food producers and workers over the profits of the huge agri-food corporations.3

Globally, poverty and the lack of money are driving not only our speedily expanding pandemic but are also advancing hunger. Some experts are suggesting that artificially produced mass foods could slow down the advance of famines, but such artificial meals might change the very nature of the eaters. After all, we are what we eat. The lack of alternatives were considered by Homer 2,800 years ago in The Odyssey: simply that hunger was the worst form of death.

The UN’s FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) as it currently stands will be unable, because of national differences, to tackle the likely scale of forthcoming global famines. For example, it now fails to control the private operations of the huge fish freezing super-trawlers which are not only threatening the survival of special fish species but also are depriving millions of the hungry from the untold tons of fish being wasted in their gigantic net operations.

Given this difficult and tragic situation, I believe the food and its distribution should be brought under the control of a single truly powerful international organization and not by the capitalist corporations currently benefiting from the disasters I have been describing. Huge private operations like those of Unilever, Sysco, Nestle, Perdue, and Cargill ultimately should be brought together as collaborative cooperatives to create a truly Global FAO.4

Globally it will be our collective responsibility to transform the ways we deal with food, the ways it grows and is distributed. Money has never been good at bringing people together like food does. It is high time that we get our priorities right in the frightening crises we may soon be facing.

As long as Trump is President there is no possibility of serious global action. His prejudiced outlook is based on narrow nationalism very close to that once held by Hitler. So we must wait for Biden to take over and get the nations of the world together to tackle gigantic problems such as the environment or the horrors of hunger and famine which have been disregarded by Trump.

1“We’re going to have to confront food insecurity,” David Gelles, The New York Times, July 1, 2020

2“The tables not yet turned,” The Economist, May 9, 2020, pp 13-15

4“World Faces Worst Food Crisis,” Fiona Harvey, The Guardian, June 9, 2020

4See: Yorick Bumenfeld, Dollars or Democracy, (2004)

1 thought on “From Food Crisis to Famine?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s